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How long can you survive without sleep?

264 Hours is officially recognised as the longest time without sleep.

The Guinness Book of Records no longer officially recognises sleeplessness records. There’s a very good reason for this, as not sleeping can have a negative effect on your health and the nice people at Guinness understandably don’t want that on their conscience.

Before they stopped, their officially recognised longest time without sleep was 264 hours (just over 11 days), achieved by 17-year-old American student Randy Gardner in 1964 as part of a school science project.

Others have tried to make an unofficial claim to the record, such as Jim Thomas, who claimed to have gone 266 hours without sleep just two weeks after Gardner. British woman Maureen Weston also laid claim to the record in 1977, reportedly shunning sleep for a massive 449 hours (18 days).

However, Gardner’s is still regarded as the longest scientifically-observed feat and, given that official records are no longer held, it’s unlikely to be beaten. It’s definitely not recommended that you try!

girl not sleeping

Why is sleep deprivation bad for you?

An example of the worst-case scenario occurred in 2012, when a Chinese man died after staying awake for 11 days to watch the European Football Championships. He had reportedly worked during the day and stayed up all night to watch the matches, which due to the time difference kicked off overnight in China.

It’s thought that his habit of smoking and drinking during matches may have contributed, gradually damaging his immune system to a fatal level.

The symptoms of not sleeping

The symptoms caused by not sleeping are well-documented. Scientists observing Gardner claimed that after four days he became paranoid and delusional. By day six, he could barely form a complete sentence and his concentration span was almost non-existent, although he is reported to have beaten one of the scientists at pinball some time around day 10.

Other Symptoms

Before Gardner, in 1958 a DJ named Peter Tripp attempted to broadcast his show for 200 hours as part of a charity stunt. Listeners reported he became noticeably irritable around day three, most likely due to a rise in stress hormones (which probably caused an increase in blood pressure) and a drop in body temperature.

Like Gardner, Tripp experienced dreamlike hallucinations, imagining that the studio was full of kittens and that there were spiders in his shoes. It’s thought that he essentially entered a state similar to the REM stage of sleep. This is where our minds are most active and when dreams and nightmares occur.

What to do if you can’t sleep

We all have the odd night where we find it hard to drop off, and while you’ll probably feel a bit grumpy the next day, it won’t harm your health.

There are things you can do throughout the day that will help you enjoy a good night’s sleep, particularly as you get closer to bedtime:

  • While it can be tempting to lie in on a weekend, try to get up at around the same time every day to help your body stay in a routine.
  • Don’t exercise, drink alcohol or smoke for at least four hours before going to bed.
  • Don’t watch TV or use a computer or smartphone just before bed. Certainly don’t have any of these things on once you’re in bed.
  • If light stops you sleeping, invest in some eye pads, or a set of thick curtains or blinds.
  • If you live in a noisy area, use earplugs so your sleep isn’t disturbed.
  • If you’re preoccupied with something, write it down along with a list of possible solutions to try and clear your mind until morning.

Some of these changes will be easier said than done, particularly if you’ve had the same routine for a long time, but they will help. They’re certainly a better option than resorting to over-the-counter sleeping tablets.

Having trouble sleeping? See a doctor today.

If you’ve been having trouble getting to sleep, our doctors are here to help.

They’re here to provide support from 7am until 10pm every day, including Bank Holidays and weekends.

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